Purgatory is a place where souls go to atone for their sins before being admitted into heaven. Assam’s Detention Camps are the dark, dank and dreary modern day purgatory like limbo lands, where those who are Declared Foreigner (DF) by Foreigners’ Tribunals (FT) are condemned to spend their time till they are able to either secure bail or have the FT judgment overturned by a higher court. However, given how most inmates end up there only because of minor discrepancies in their paperwork and no actual ‘crime’ or ‘sin’, Detention Camps are worse than Purgatory, or even Hell.
There are several horror stories related to Detention Camps in Assam. 61 year old Jobbar Ali died under unexplained circumstances at the Tezpur Detention Camp in October 2018. Earlier, in May 2018, Subrata De died under mysterious circumstances in Goalpara. And then there are instances where just spelling your name differently on two documents can land you in a Detention Camp! Take the case of Saken Ali, who was forced to spend five years in a Detention Camp just because some of his documents showed his name spelled with an extra ‘H’ or as Sakhen Ali. The sick are handcuffed to their hospital beds as we discovered in the case of a shivering and emaciated Ratan Chandra Biswas.
Even pregnant and elderly women are not spared! Rashminara Begum was thrown behind bars despite being three months pregnant. The Supreme Court ordered the release of 50 year old Sofiya Khatun on a Personal Release Bond in September 2018. Her experience was so traumatic that even 15 days after coming back home, she could not utter a single word!
Today, Detention Camps operate out of make shift facilities in six local prisons across Assam; Dhibrugarh, Tezpur, Goalpara, Kokrajhar, Silchar and Jorhat. The detainees are lodged here till they are deported to the country of their origin or are able to secure their release. As per a submission made before the Assam Assembly on March 26, 2018, over 900 people are detained at these detention camps and close to 30,000 people have been deported since 1985.
Condition of Inmates in Detention Camps
When Debabrata Saikia, Leader of the Opposition in the Assam Assembly, visited the Kokrajhar Detention Camp in June 2018, he spoke to some of the women inmates. “They told me how they had two toilets, two bathrooms and four taps for over a hundred women. They also said they were forced to share space with hardened criminals,” says Saikia. “They meet their family from behind bars of a gate. Their families are allowed to offer them dry food like fruit and snacks. Sometimes they also give them money, but never more than Rs 500,” he adds.
This is particularly interesting because while hardened criminals like dacoits and murderers are allowed to work in prison and earn money, detention camp inmates do not have the same rights. Some inmates also allege that the prison guards, often encourage the hardened criminals to bully the detainees to keep them under control and in perpetual fear. “There were four murderers in my cell block and they would roam free terrorising every one. The guards would just look the other way,” says Rashminara Begum who was dragged away to the Kokrajhar detention camp in November 2016 and released on bail only after her daughter was born.
But what is also deeply disturbing is how inmates are treated even when they step out for medical treatment. Ratan Chandra Biswas, a Bengali Hindu from Gerukabari Village under Manikpur Police Station of Bongaigaon District, has been langushing in a Detention Camp for over two years. At the time of detention, he had no health complaints. His condition however started deteriorating soon after detention. Finally after prolonged illnesses he was admitted to the Goalpara Civil Hospital. He was handcuffed throughout his treatment. A shivering and traumatised Ratan Chandra Biswas said, on video, to CJP’s sister concern Sabrang India, “I have studied up to class six. My grandfather’s name is in the 1966 Voters list. There is a small piece of land in my father’s name. Though I am an Indian Citizen, I have been forced inside a detention camp for the last 2 years and five months.”
The video may be viewed here:
According to the submission made before the Assam Assembly on March 26, 2018, Detention Camps have been set up under the provisions of section 3 (2) e of the Foreigners Act 1946 and paragraphs 11 (2) of the Foreigners Order 1948. As these Detention Camps operate out of make shift facilities in jails, their affairs are conducted as per the Assam Jail Manual. However, detainees have fewer rights than even convicted criminals serving sentence. The entire submission may be read here:
Several human rights organisations, activists and media reports have highlighted the inhuman conditions under which people are held at such facilities. Human Rights activist Harsh Mander who was Minorities Monitor with the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has filed a petition before the Supreme Court challenging the infringement of rights of inmates under article 14 and 21 of the Constitution of India. The petition demands a redress of fundamental rights and asks for humane treatment of inmates. The petition may be read here:
The findings of the NHRC vis-a-vis Assam’s Detention Camps may be read here:
Relevant International Statutes
There are several international agreements, conventions, statutes and guidelines as to how to treat stateless people, be they refugees, asylum seekers, migrants (legal or otherwise), undocumented residents or people with questionable claims to citizenship. These may be read here:
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1966
Article 7: No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment…
Article 10(1): All persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person.
Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
(1) Each State Party shall take effective legislative, administrative, judicial or other measures to prevent acts of torture in any territory under its jurisdiction.
(2) No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.
(3) An order from a superior officer or a public authority may not be invoked as a justification of torture.
Each State Party shall keep under systematic review interrogation rules, instructions, methods and practices as well as arrangements for the custody and treatment of persons subjected to any form of arrest, detention or imprisonment in any territory under its jurisdiction, with a view to preventing any cases of torture.
Article 16 (1) Each State Party shall undertake to prevent in any territory under its jurisdiction other acts of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment which do not amount to torture as defined in article I, when such acts are committed by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.
Some other related international conventions may be read here:
Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners
European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Convention relating to the Status of Refugees
Given how Assam has allocated 20 bhigas of land in Thakurbhita in Goalpara district for the construction of a Detention Camp with the capacity to lodge 3000 inmates, and two more Detention Camps are being planned in Silchar and Tezpur, it is important that the provisions of these international statutes are adhered to in letter and spirit.